From the moment Pope Francis was elected to the papacy in 2013, he seemingly elevated the significance of popedom in pop-culture. From being a part of a little-known, hilarious Kardashian scandal (“#popeisdope,” anyone?) to the more serious buzz surrounding his positive relationship with Joe Biden — “the second Roman Catholic president in American history” (via NPR), Pope Francis is shaking things up. Simultaneously a reaction to, and catalyst for, global fascination about him, Pope Francis was the first pope to be named TIME‘s 2013 person of the year.
Many Catholics are delighted by Pope Francis and believe he embodies the true teachings of Christ. Others fear he is leading the highly-structured institution astray with his push to widen inclusion and increase Church acceptance of (or, at least, forgiveness for) societal tenets that have been traditionally shunned by Catholicism. Love him or fear him, this modern Holy Father is a renegade — so much so that he was on the cover of Rolling Stone in January 2014 and profiled in a feature entitled, “Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Bucking tradition is Pope Francis’ calling card, and he never ceases to amaze the watchful eyes of the Church, and the public, as he forges many a new-normal in papal behavior. Let’s take a look at some of the lesser-known reasons this modern pontiff is viewed as both controversial and fascinating around the globe.
Pope Francis is currently a citizen of three different countries
Talk about a man of the world! Pope Francis is currently a citizen of his home country of Argentina, the Vatican, which is a standalone country in itself, and Italy, which surrounds the independent country of the Vatican on all sides. He has had a connection to Italy since his birth in 1936, as his parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina, Biography reports.
The pontiff’s citizenship isn’t merely a formality. He can converse in many languages, which enables him to communicate effectively throughout the world. Pope Francis is fluent in Spanish and Italian, and he can converse in English, German, Portuguese, French, and Latin (via Pope Francis: Untying the Knots).
Education has played a significant role in Pope Francis’ life. Biography reports he was trained as a chemical technician at a technical school prior to attending the Diocesan Seminary of Villa Devoto and additional Jesuit religious training at the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in 1958. The future-pontiff then studied theology, graduating in 1970 from the Colegio of San José and earned a doctorate in theology in Freiburg, Germany in 1986.
Pope Francis used to teach chemistry, psychology, and literature
The election of a new pope generates understandable interest in his pre-papal life. When Pope Francis was chosen to succeed Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, details of his formative years became pop-culture fodder because the pontiff has led a surprisingly interesting life! According to Today, Pope Francis served, among other professions, as an assistant in a chemistry lab and a teacher.
Biography reveals Pope Francis taught both literature and psychology at College of the Immaculate Conception in Santa Fé, Argentina from 1964 to 1965. SerArgentino.com points to a permanent installment at the college exhibiting mementos from Pope Francis’ time teaching at the school. Following his tenure there, then-Fr. Jorge Bergoglio moved to teach similar classes at the Colegio del Salvatore in Buenos Aires.
National Catholic Reporter spoke to the Pope’s former student, Jorge Milia, about his teaching style. Milia remembers Fr. Bergoglio as instrumental in helping students learn self-confidence by teaching them how to carefully examine the world, form their own opinions, think for themselves, and trust their own thoughts. Milia said the future-pontiff provided “support to whoever ventured an in-depth pursuit on their own,” later adding, “He didn’t try to limit my exuberance, but sought to channel it in a positive way, giving it structure.”
Pope Francis was once a nightclub bouncer
Pope Francis told parishioners at San Cirillo Alessandrino church in a suburb of Rome, Italy, in December 2013 (via BuzzFeed News) that his experience teaching was part of the journey that taught him to bring people who have gone astray back to the Church. But Catholic News Service reports (via Today) Pope Francis also told the San Cirillo Alessandrino crowd that another one of his jobs had helped him hone that skill: guarding the door at a Buenos Aires club, turning away and removing troublemakers.
First reported by Gazetta de Sud in March 2013, and confirmed in December of that year by the pontiff at San Cirillo Alessandrino, Pope Francis held a job as a nightclub bouncer to support himself while attending school. This revelation, above all others, seemed to rile excitement about Pope Francis’ pre-priesthood life, and it earned him street-cred and praise on Twitter. CNN‘s Ana Navarro-Cárdenas tweeted, “Thinking of getting bumper sticker printed: ‘My Church Leader is cooler than ur Church Leader.’ #LoveFrancis”
As details of Pope Francis’ pre-priesthood life continued to be unveiled, The New York Times bestselling author, commentator Charles Blow, wrote in a since-deleted tweet (via USA Today), “The Pope comes out with something cooler every week… If he releases a mix tape it will be all over.” Let this be a lesson to never judge a book by its papal regalia.
Pope Francis is active on Twitter
Pope Francis really is viewed in a rock star-esque manner. In addition to being the subject of a Rolling Stone cover story, his social media game is strong! The pontiff has a Twitter account with 18.8 million followers, as of this writing. His tweets run the gamut, including guidance for spiritual healing: “All of us have spiritual infirmities that we cannot heal on our own. We need Jesus’ healing,” to statements opposing human rights abuses that are often seen as political: “Ten years ago, the bloody conflict in Syria began that has caused one of the most serious humanitarian catastrophes. Let us #PrayTogether so that all the suffering experienced by beloved and tortured Syria might not be forgotten and so that our solidarity might revive their hope.” Sometimes, he’ll even link to videos on his YouTube channel.
The pontiff, People reports, is frequently happy to comply with requests from admirers seeking a photograph with him. While he’s concerned about a culture of excessive self-reliance (in delivered remarks, he said, “Thank God there are still no soul selfies. To be happy, we must ask others for help, that someone else takes the photo.”), he’s still happy to oblige requests for photos with the faithful.
Like his secular-rock-star counterparts, Pope Francis gotta do Pope Francis.
A young Pope Francis had a girlfriend, and they loved to tango
Young Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, not yet having dedicated his life to the Catholic Church, set his sights on a neighborhood girl, Amalia Damonte, and openly stated his intention to marry her. The future pope’s former crush told The Seattle Times he wrote her a “love” letter when they were both 12 years old. “I remember perfectly that he had drawn me a little white house, which had a red roof,” she said. “And it said, ‘this is what I’ll buy when we marry.'”
Alas, it was not meant to be. Her mother was having none of the budding romance, and it was clear little Bergoglio’s heart was already being pulled in a different direction. She recalls his saying, “If I don’t marry you, I’m going to be a priest.” Between parental intervention and a calling to the cloth, the only lasting aspect of this young love affair was Pope Francis’ love of the tango.
In an interview for the 2010 book, The Jesuit, by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti (via NDTV), Pope Francis revealed he learned to tango with Damonte and that his love and knowledge of the dance grew over time, gleaming, “I like it a lot. It’s something that comes from within me.” The pontiff’s affinity for tango is now famous, and a tango dance party was thrown on the streets of Rome in celebration of Pope Francis’ 78th birthday, Time reports.
He is the first pope named Francis, the first Jesuit Pope, and the first Latin-American pontiff
Pop-culture phenom Pope Francis seems to be an original in nearly every way. National Catholic Reporter reports he is the first pontiff to ever choose the papal name, Francis. The Vatican confirmed that the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio selected the name to honor St. Francis of Assisi, a 12th-century monk “known for his simple lifestyle and dedication to the works of mercy.” Biography reports Pope Francis’ work as pope has lived up to his goal of honoring the namesake he selected, having been “characterized by humility and outspoken support of the world’s poor and marginalized people… [and] involved actively in areas of political diplomacy and environmental advocacy.”
Pope Francis’ papacy has uprooted so many norms that it only seems fitting he is the first pope born outside of Europe in more than 1,000 years—and the first-ever from the Americas. Ordained as a Jesuit Catholic priest in 1969, Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as provincial superior of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit order of Christian men in the Catholic Church, from 1973 to 1979 and rose through Church ranks to become Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1998. He was named Cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II.
Pope Francis was the second choice of the conclave that selected his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) in 2005, so the new pontiff’s election process was not lengthy or highly-contested.
Pope Francis likes simple living
The attention Pope Francis gets might seem at odds with his goal of living simply, but—whether it’s his many firsts within the Catholic Church or the sometimes-shocking stories of his pre-priesthood life — there is no doubt he has forever altered the public perception of the papacy and the options a pontiff has for his tenure as the leader of the Church.
This pontiff does not reside in the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, where previous popes have lived. Instead, he lives in the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse on Vatican grounds. It has been reported that Pope Francis gives Vatican security the slip and goes out at night in priest’s clothing to help and bless the homeless, but the Vatican denies these reports.
While Pope Francis is known for stressing humility, caring for the poor, expanding interfaith dialogue, and touting God’s mercy, he still supports most traditional Church doctrine. His views seem to be continually evolving into more progressive ideology — but slowly.
Pope Francis has health issues
According to AP (via Time), Pope Francis had part of his right lung removed when he was a teenager due to what could have been a birth defect or unusual blood vessel growth that obstructed his breathing, but the cause was likely an infection like pneumonia, a fungal infection, or an illness like tuberculosis. At the time, the antibiotic treatments readily available today weren’t easy to obtain, so it is likely his lung was partially removed to stop the spread of an infection.
David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles professor Dr. John Belperio explained, “It was probably a pretty bad infection, and maybe even an abscess, that might have caused him to bleed. If he were bleeding a lot in the lung, the only thing to do is to resect the lung, take it out, to stop the bleeding.”
As far as we know, the pontiff is a healthy 84-year-old (save for that one coronavirus fright in 2020 where he, thankfully, tested negative), but there’s one persistent, recurring issue that plagues him regularly: sciatica. Unfortunately, Pope Francis has regular bouts with this painful condition, which causes him to limp and sometimes have difficulty standing. Express reported in January 2021 that he had to cancel several appearances and deliver some remarks while seated due to a recurrence of sciatica, which will likely be an issue for Pope Francis for the remainder of his life.
Pope Francis loves soccer
Pope Francis loves soccer and sees it as both an enjoyable pastime and metaphorical pathway to help others understand his religious teachings (via Crux). And the pontiff knows how to spin sports talk into a thoughtful, pithy sermon. At the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Italian Sports Center, he reminded people not to take the competition too seriously. “Only by remaining a game will it do good for the body and spirit … challenge yourself in the game of life like you are in the game of sports. Challenge yourself in the quest for good, in both Church and society, without fear, with courage and enthusiasm.”
Catholic News Agency reported Pope Francis told a crowd of young athletes at the Vatican that participating in team sports “means to reject all forms of selfishness and isolation — it is an opportunity to meet and be with others, to help each other, to compete in mutual esteem and grow in brotherhood.” The pontiff tweeted about the societal benefits of a worldwide soccer tournament, saying, “The World Cup allowed people from different countries and religions to come together. May sport always promote the culture of encounter.”
His home team, The New York Times reports, is the San Lorenzo de Almagro Football Club.
Pope Francis loves good, artful storytelling
As a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s entire body of work, per the Italian blog, Inoltre, Pope Francis has a special affinity for the characters of Frodo and Bilbo in The Hobbit series, as they represent optimistic heroes who are called to walk through drama and choose between good and evil. The pontiff said, “Throughout mythology and history the echo of the fact that man is not a still, tired being, but is called to walk, resounds, and if he does not enter this dimension he is annulled as a person and is corrupted.”
His Holiness has also experimented with creative art forms on his own, and it seems Pope Francis was an even better fit for Rolling Stone than anyone could have known! In 2015, he released an album called Wake Up!, filled with tracks of the pontiff singing hymns and delivering sermons and speeches with, well, beats in the background. One song, “Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward,” is a spoken-word piece with a heavy-ish rock score that creates an entire mood at the intersection of religion, art, life, and spirit.
The whole world is out here trying to take in everything we learn about Pope Francis and uttering a collective, “Whoah!,” as new information continues to be revealed. Glory be!
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